As we mark LGBT+ History Month, author MJ Buckman looks back at how the film and TV industries in the UK and America have represented LGBT+ people.
LGBT+ representation in film and TV
When the film industry was in its infancy at the beginning of the twentieth century, gay-coding was already common. LGBT+ characters were depicted using coded signals for a variety of reasons, but mostly because being gay was demonised by the church, pathologised by the medical fraternity, and criminalised by the state.
So, in early films, LGBT+ characters were caricatured by men who minced and women who appeared masculine. A cultural shift did begin to emerge, particularly in Weimar Germany and Austria, but this was soon quashed, especially when a huge body of work was destroyed at Hitler’s command. However, one reel of one extraordinary film survived. Made in 1919, Different from the Others tenderly depicts a love story between two men. The film calls for justice through knowledge, adding that homosexuality is natural, is not wrong, and should not be illegal. What an amazing piece of gay rights work, from over a hundred years ago.
Over in America, protestation about sympathetic early films and plays such as Mae West’s play The Drag (over which she was taken to court) led to strict codes, effectively banning depictions of homosexuality – The Hays Code, banning so-called “sexual perversion,” in the 1920s, and The Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters in 1952. Gay-coded characters were often portrayed as criminals or perverted, or causing a problem that impacted the straight characters.
Here in the UK, we tended to depict gay characters as overtly camp. Kenneth Williams provided much of the effeminate material, for instance in the Carry On films, while Rex Jameson was known for his persona Mrs Shufflewick. There were a few exceptions to stereotypical representations, but they weren’t universally accepted. A TV play called South which centred on a gay character, was aired shortly after the Wolfenden Report had recommended decriminalising homosexuality. A reporter concluded: “I do NOT see anything attractive in the agonies and ecstasies of a pervert…There are some indecencies in life that are best left covered up.”
After the UK legalisation of gay sex for men over 21 in 1967, a host of caricatures emerged, especially in sitcoms, so that by the 1970s we had the likes of John Inman in Are You Being Served? and Melvyn Hays in It Ain’t ‘Alf ‘Ot Mum, where camp suggestive lines, limp-wristed gestures and mincing walks all provided an easy laugh. And we had more comedic men in drag, like Les Dawson and Hinge and Bracket.
At the start of the 1980s, the US codes had been lifted and films depicting trans characters and gay men in a more sympathetic light finally began to emerge again, such as Making Love. However, there were virtually no lesbian films; Desert Hearts is the only film I could find which includes a lesbian romance. The mid to late 1980s marked a low point, with homophobia rampant, fuelled by the AIDS crisis, and by Thatcher’s Section 28, banning the promotion of homosexuality in schools. The film American industry wasn’t brave enough to challenge the negative hype, although one film to buck this trend was Kiss of the Spiderwoman in 1985. It wasn’t until Philadelphia in 1994, that we saw the first film about AIDS, shining a light on the terrible effects of this awful disease, and on the homophobia experienced by gay men. This was four years after the World Health Organisation had finally declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. American television continued to shy away from serious depictions of LGBT+ people, although we did see Steven Carrington in Dynasty, the first openly gay main character on a major prime-time drama, followed by a smattering of others.
Men in comedic drag continued to be the acceptable answer over here, gracing our TV screens throughout the 1980s, including Dick Emery, who gave us as a flamboyant gay man and a randy lady with the catchphrase, “Ooh you are awful…but I like you!” There were a few documentaries about LGBT+ people, including A Change of Sex, following the transition of Julia Grant. Then, we experienced a series of TV watershed moments in which the TV channels took turns to participate. One in Five, the first national show for and about lesbian and gay people, launched on Channel 4 in 1982. The first gay kiss was on BBC 1’s Eastenders in 1989, but we had to wait another five years before the first lesbian kiss in 1994 on Channel 4’s Brookside. Then, ITV’s Coronation Street featured the first trans character in a TV drama in 1998. By the end of the twentieth century, LGBT+ culture was present, visible and increasingly celebrated on our screens. Paddington Green in the late 90s featured Jackie, a young trans woman who worked as a prostitute to raise money for her surgeries. And 1999 saw the first outing of Queer as Folk, written by Russell T Davis. For people a little younger than me, this was a pivotal series, portraying the lives of a group of gay men in 1990s Manchester.
Now, we have more representation of LGBT+ culture than ever before. But the work isn’t over. Only a third of LGBT+ people feel that they are portrayed in a positive light on our screens, and also increased representation is fuelling increased homophobia and transphobia. We cannot take for granted that the wonderful progress made during the twentieth century is here to stay. It’s up to the film and TV makers to continue what they’ve started, so that history does not repeat itself.
MJ is the author of Bent Is Not Broken which explores LGBT+ history and culture, and is a regular contributor to the Silly Linguistics online magazine
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